The Beckoning (2021)
Dir. Stewart Hamilton
by Ellis Reed
The Beckoning is the newest short from Scotland-based filmmaker Stewart Hamilton, who previously brought us The Seeker (2017) and The Telling (2020).
According to the Indiegogo campaign notes, ‘The Beckoning is a supernatural tale about a man who comes to possess a strange and otherworldly painting that depicts an impossible stone formation, set in a landscape he knows all too well. Who painted it? And why? Madness awaits.’ The premise sounds very M.R. James, but the last two words are perhaps the most telling, because it’s Lovecraft, rather than James, who sprang to mind when I watched the film.
Where The Beckoning most excels is in the creation of a thoroughly, sometimes almost unbearably eerie mood. This is partly down to the style of the production; it feels very strongly like something that was made in the Eighties, erased from time by the Mandela Effect, and somehow recovered from a TV archive in another dimension. The synthy-sounding pieces by The Night Monitor are pitch-perfect, both in terms of the period being evoked and the mood conveyed. Hamilton – known in musical circles as S.T.R.S.G.N – supplies his own opening theme, which sounds authentically far older than it is.
The uncanny texture is matched by the meat of the film, where the horror comes from a rising sense of unease. Matthew (Andy Noble) is the only actor shown on screen. He moves between his home and the nearby beach, paying close attention to the view, and something is clearly very wrong in his world. Human voices are used sparingly; he rarely speaks, but a phone and radio are used to great effect, with a scene involving the former being the highlight of the film.
The Beckoning will appeal very much to fans of cosmic horror, weird teleplays, strange archive footage, and horror that relies on creeping dread rather than jump scares. At the time of writing, we’ve seen two versions: the ‘festival’ cut, which weighs in at less than twenty minutes, and a slightly longer version, which we expect to appear online in due course. Both work very nicely. The festival cut is presented in widescreen, while the longer version is shown in 4:3. Again from Indiegogo: ‘Since the early 2000s, I have been obsessed with classic British sci-fi and supernatural TV dramas. Some favourites of mine include Children of the Stones, Chocky, Day of the Triffids, The Stone Tape and The Quatermass Conclusion. For me, these programmes capture a fantastic era in storytelling and an incredibly innovative period in television production and sound design.’ Of the two, the director’s preferred version is the more authentic tribute, but the festival cut has its own charms, because the outdoor photography really shines in widescreen.
Basically, watch whichever version you get the chance to see. Seek it out at festivals, and wait for it to hit Vimeo if you miss it on the big screen. In the meantime, make sure you watch The Telling, which is already available here.
We took the opportunity to talk to Stewart Hamilton about his work…
ELLIS: You’ve been inspired by cult TV shows from the Seventies and Eighties, like The Stone Tape and Children of the Stones. Can you pinpoint a single moment that cemented your love of the genre?
STEWART: Weirdly, I can almost pinpoint the exact moment!
I grew up in the 80s watching all sorts of weird and wonderful TV. I know I watched lots of kids’ stuff like Sesame St, Fraggle Rock, and Trap Door, but thinking about those now I can’t really remember much about them. On the other hand, as has now been very well documented, there was a wealth of…’other stuff’ that broadcast around the same time that was subtly (or not so subtly) enrooted in my brain.
The ’other stuff’ was brought back into focus for me and many others by the Scottish electronic music duo, Boards of Canada, with their 1998 album ‘Music Has the Right To Children’, which perfectly captured the eerie cassette-warped sound of those forgotten (and/or repressed) TV-related childhood memories. The album definitely started a lot of ‘remember when’ conversations, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I would fully rediscover the ‘other stuff’. I’ll define the ‘other stuff’ at this point as disturbing TV adverts, weird educational programming, and downright scary kids’ TV shows of the 80s.
One day while working in Fopp (2001-ish, I think) a DVD copy of ‘The Tripods’ appeared in stock. Up until that point, and no lie, I genuinely thought that the images from that programme were a nightmare that I had as a child. I had no idea the programme existed. I bought the DVD and watched it that evening, while I had no recollection of most of what I saw I think that was the moment my passion for all things ‘other stuff’, or as I would come to understand it much later, ‘Hauntology’, or things of a ‘hauntological aesthetic’, would start. From there, I went back a bit and discovered Chocky (a rediscovery in that case), Children of the Stones, The Stone Tape, The Quatermass Conclusion, the writing of Nigel Kneale/John Wyndham, and everything else that would come to influence me so heavily later on.
E: What was the genesis of The Beckoning’s story?
S: The initial idea for The Beckoning came from a painting that has been in my family for decades. We don’t really know much about it, other than it was gifted to my father from my great-grandmother’s house in the 70s. I always take a moment to look at it when I am home and on this occasion it made me wonder about our changing environment (coastal erosion, etc), and what might have been lost to the waves over the years. Add to that some daydreaming about stone circles/leylines and that’s pretty much where The Beckoning was born.
That’s how things work for me really, an object, a sound, a place, a memory, those are the triggers for me to start writing. In this case, seeing this painting again provided me with the stimulus to get writing and The Beckoning was the result. As it happens, that’s exactly how The Seeker and The Telling started as well, half-remembered stories and memories flooding back while travelling back home.
E: You’re a composer as well as a filmmaker. What was it like working with another musician on the score for The Beckoning? How did that collaboration come about, and what made you decide to work with someone else on this occasion, rather than scoring the film yourself?
S: The collaboration first came about during the editing process, I’d been a fan of Neil’s (The Night Monitor) for a good while and I thought I would drop in a temp track of his to see if it would fit in a particular scene. In the end, it fitted so well that I decided I would try my luck and ask if he would like to help me to score the short. Neil’s music could literally be lifted from a 70s or 80s ‘unexplained mysteries’ type show, so I knew his sound would elevate the themes of the short, and bring tension to the on-screen action.
I’ve learned quite a few lessons as I’ve created my short films over the years. As someone who wants to do, or have a say in everything, a valuable lesson I have learned is to give up roles where I can. For indie directors, this isn’t the case 99% of the time, but nobody should ideally have to write, direct, produce, cast, cater, and sing the theme tune (while I didn’t sing, I did create the theme tune in this case – R.I.P Dennis Waterman) on a project.
In the end, Neil ended up providing 95% of the score, I added a couple of atmospheric pieces, and we stuck with my original main theme. It’s a fantastic score and we are currently working on a standalone album release, more news on that soon! Ultimately, Neil’s incredible score raised the bar of the short, and it was a genuine pleasure to work with him.
E: Andy Noble is the sole person on screen for the duration of the film. What’s it like directing an actor in this kind of role? Is it easier or harder than directing multiple actors who have to (or maybe get to?) play off each other’s performances?
S: Without giving too much away, the role required a fair bit of unspoken intensity. It was actually written with Andy in mind, given my experience with him on The Telling, where he did a great job in portraying the troubled Peter. His research, preparation, and understanding of the character meant that directing him was actually one of the easiest things on the shoot for The Beckoning.
Thinking about it now, I suppose the only thing I did have to contend with was using the studio space effectively, basically working with Andy, the DOP Stuart, and his team to keep a sense of momentum in the absence of continuous dialogue. I knew I had some other props (a radio, for example) to provide a bit of contrast, but in the end each scene felt busy enough and I think we managed to strike the right balance.
E: Of all the plans you had for The Beckoning, which came together most perfectly? And were there any regrets or missed opportunities by the end of the production?
S: The actual production had a few delays initially, but this was to our advantage in the long run as we ended up having the use of a studio space to film the interior scenes (thanks to our DOP Stuart Gilmartin, and Stream Digital), which gave us far more flexibility and space to work with. I think the studio scenes add a bit more of that almost ‘theatre set’ look that a lot of 80s productions shared, a kind of drafty, hollow look, walls quivering in the wind, etc.
The main prop for the short, which I won’t go into too much detail about at the moment (spoilers), also worked really well. I worked on quite a few excellent collaborations in the creation of the short, but I’ll discuss those in more detail after the short has been released for general viewing.
I definitely had more ideas for The Beckoning, including additional locations and characters, but we just couldn’t consider them on the budget.
E: When you’re working in shortform cinema – especially when you’re dealing with fantastical subject matter – how much of the worldbuilding do you make explicit, and how much do you let the viewer infer or deduce for themselves?
S: I tend to write my scripts with a fair amount of exposition up front. Mainly because trying to add things in later on a budget is just not possible. I think I would rather start from a place of too much information, and scale it back than find myself short of material to tell my story. It’s also easy to assume every detail will translate well from the page to the screen, and sometimes that doesn’t happen the way you expect so you have to rely on other cues to set something in motion.
I was always fascinated to hear that John Carpenter’s The Fog faced a sizeable reshoot, so I think anything can happen really, regardless of your experience. I’ve actually used a small test audience this time around and the feedback has been really helpful in clarifying a few points that were harder to see when I was so close to the project in the edit.
E: You’ve described The Seeker, The Telling, and The Beckoning as a ‘trilogy’. What are the threads that unite them?
S: In truth, it just seemed like a good milestone to aim for initially, and who wouldn’t want to create a trilogy!
Having said that, each of the main characters in the three shorts are isolated from wider society and are eventually doomed in some way or another, so for me, that’s the through-line of the series. As the DOP on The Beckoning said while we were out on a location scouting trip, ‘what is it with you and these doomed loners’, in reference to my stories, I replied ‘write what you know,’. I’m not a loner (or doomed, hopefully), but it sounded funny at the time.
Initially, I had actually planned to write The Seeker, The Teller, and The Teacher. The Teller was slightly adapted and became The Telling, and The Teacher was eventually replaced by a new story with The Beckoning.
E: You collaborated with the Night Monitor on the score, you mentioned you also worked with some other collaborators on the short?
S: I’ve been really lucky to work with some really amazing artists on The Beckoning.
Before I mention those collaborators, I really need to shout out everyone who took a chance and pledged some cash to the project, and my returning DOP Stuart Gilmartin, and his team Jane Young and Connor Wilson. I also need to give a big shout-out to Horrified’s very own, Jae Prowse, who encouraged me to make the short happen in the first place. His discovery and support of The Telling really gave me the confidence to direct again. Cheers, Jae!
In terms of collaboration, in addition to The Night Monitor, I also worked with fantastic graphic designers Chris Soden and Rob Glover (Rob runs the amazing Hidden Britain Sign Co.) on our stunning poster, and two custom pieces of prop design. And I was really delighted that David Read (Cultzilla) joined us again following his excellent work on The Telling. To save any spoilers I’ll reveal more about these collaborations via social media once the short is on general release later in the year.
I’ve discovered each of these artists over the last few years, and their incredible work has motivated and inspired me in my own work. Needless to say, I highly recommend you check out their stuff!
E: Lastly, what’s next for The Beckoning, and do you have anything else in the pipeline?
S: The Beckoning will remain on the festival circuit for the next few months and will be released more generally later in the year. It was written as my ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ entry, so it seems likely I will release it around Christmas.
Next up, I have a couple of projects I would love to get off the ground. I’d love to work with a production company, or to find some funding to film a pilot for a series I have been developing for the last ten years called ‘Newstone Hill’. I also have the outline of a UFO feature that I think could be really great. Both projects are a bit more ambitious, so I’m hoping my current trilogy of shorts can encourage some investment or collaboration to bring my future projects to life.